Initially there was intrigue. Then there was admiration, many years of it. Next came pity, followed by a mixture of anger and apathy.
It has been a roller-coaster of emotions during the 21 1/2-year tenure of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, which will end next month.
A look at the various stages of Wenger’s reign:
THE GLORY YEARS (1996-2006)
“Arsene Who?” read the headline across a London newspaper when Wenger, a wiry, bespectacled and relatively unknown French coach, was hired by Arsenal in September 1996.
Within two years, it was clear the club had pulled off a masterstroke.
That’s all it took for Wenger to turn Arsenal around — its players’ drinking culture, their dietary habits and the team’s style of play — and lead the club to a Premier League-FA Cup double in 1998 at the end of his first full season in charge. He was the first foreign-born manager to achieve the double.
Helped by his knowledge of the French league, Wenger quickly began constructing an outstanding side: Patrick Vieira had already joined in the months before Wenger’s arrival; Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Nicolas Anelka joined ahead of the 1998-99 season; Thierry Henry replaced Anelka in 1999. By 2001, he was building the team that would become known as the “Invincibles” — one that went through the 2003-04 league season unbeaten.
Arsenal recovered from losing the UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray in 2000 and the FA Cup final to Liverpool in 2001 by winning another league-and-cup double in 2002.
The “Invincibles” season would define his reign, with Arsenal winning 26 games and drawing the other 12 as the likes of Henry, Vieira, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Sol Campbell excelled. Wenger’s swashbuckling, slick side was awarded a special gold version of the league trophy in recognition.
Arsenal then won the FA Cup in 2005 after a penalty shootout against Manchester United. Few could have imagined that would be the club’s last major trophy for nine years.
Although Arsenal reached the Champions League final the following season, losing to Barcelona after taking an early lead in Paris, a fourth-place finish in the league was a sign of things to come. It was the first time Wenger had finished outside the top two in a full season.
THE LEAN YEARS (2006-13)
Arsenal left its Highbury home of 93 years and relocated to nearby Emirates Stadium in 2006. Suddenly, the priority was financing the new 60,000-seat stadium over strengthening the playing squad.
Vieira had already left in 2005, Henry and David Dein — who was both the vice chairman and a trusted ally of Wenger in the boardroom — departed in 2007, and Arsenal veered toward bringing through youth players and cheaper signings. There was a gradual loss of leadership at the club, on and off the field, and it began to show in results.
Between 2007-13, Arsenal finished either third or fourth in the Premier League and rarely had a concerted tilt at the title. The team squandered a five-point lead in February in the 2007-08 season and imploded in the last months of the 2010-11 season when in contention for four trophies, including losing to Birmingham in the English League Cup final.
Wenger couldn’t afford to keep hold of his star players. In 2011, Cesc Fabregas was sold to Barcelona, and Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy joined Manchester City. Top scorer Robin van Persie moved to rival Manchester United in 2012, leading his new team to the league title the following season.
Aspirations lowered at the Emirates. By 2012 and with Arsenal struggling to capture silverware, Wenger was saying that finishing in the top four — and therefore qualifying for the Champions League — was comparable to winning a trophy.
By 2013, Arsenal’s title drought extended to eight years and Wenger would soon be labeled a “specialist in failure” by managerial rival Jose Mourinho. Fueled by cash from their Russian and Abu Dhabi owners, Chelsea and Manchester City had sprinted past Arsenal and changed the financial landscape of the Premier League — much to the chagrin of the more conservative Wenger.
“I accept one basic principle for every company,” Wenger said, “that you can spend the money you make.”
THE LAST HURRAH (2013-18)
No longer hamstrung by stadium debts, Wenger could finally start spending again. Off came the financial straitjacket and in came two stars of the Spanish league, playmaker Mesut Ozil for a club-record 42.4 million pounds (then $66 million) in 2013 and forward Alexis Sanchez for 35 million pounds (then $60 million) in 2014.
Arsenal continued to secure Champions League qualification each season and the team ended its wait for silverware by winning the FA Cup in 2014 — but only after a penalty-shootout win over second-tier Wigan in the semifinals and the need for extra time to beat Hull 3-2 in the final. There were reports that Wenger might have quit had Arsenal lost the final; instead he signed a new three-year deal.
By now, though, there was a small but loud contingent of fans that was growing tired with Wenger. The embarrassing losses started to build up, including a 5-1 loss at Liverpool and 6-0 loss at Chelsea in his 1,000th match in charge of Arsenal.
Arsenal retained the FA Cup in 2015, taking Wenger’s haul of titles in that competition to six, but it couldn’t hide the team’s failure to challenge for the Premier League or Champions League. Arsenal’s limitations in the Champions League were particularly galling, with Wenger unable to lead his side beyond the last 16 from 2011-17.
Wenger acknowledged that he missed a great chance to win a first Premier League title since 2004 when Arsenal finished second behind surprise champion Leicester in the 2015-16 season.
Fan unrest was at its worst the following season as the Gunners slipped from league contention by February and were thrashed 10-2 on aggregate in the last 16 of the Champions League. For the first time in a full season under Wenger, Arsenal missed out on qualifying for the Champions League but the season was partially saved by winning the FA Cup after a surprise victory over Chelsea.
In what has proved to be his final season, Arsenal’s lineup has been possibly the weakest under Wenger. There was no challenge for the league, an early exit from the FA Cup and a loss to Manchester City in the final of the League Cup.
The club has reached the Europa League semifinals, so Wenger can sign off his long tenure with another major trophy, his 11th at Arsenal. It would be a fitting finale.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80